“Isobel has cancer.” For Andrew and Tegan Kominek these three words changed everything. It was…
There are a lot of things people don’t know about Canberra, which often lead to our fair city being labelled boring.
Any proud Canberran would be able to argue for hours about the vibrant local precincts for an excellent brunch or good night out, or our excellent local arts and music culture, and history as a BMX capital.
A still little-known fact, though, is that Canberra is the home to an extraordinary equestrian scene, with nationally ranked riders, excellent trainers, and a supportive and inclusive community for equestrian enthusiasts.
Two local women who have been contributing to the local and national dressage community for decades are sisters Danielle Ffrench and Amanda Clark. Together, they manage the family’s equestrian riding school, agistment facility and horse training business, Gooromon Park Horse Riding Centre. As athletes, they compete together and support each other, currently each showing a horse owned by the other.
And as sisters and interview subjects, they both share the same whip-smart humour, hundred-miles-a-minute pace, and ability to talk at the same time and somehow understand exactly what the other is saying.
When we catch up for a drink for me to pick their brains about how they came to have such multi-faceted careers as riders, coaches and trainers, Amanda and Danielle are still floating on the high of over a month of very successful outings with their young horses.
Hollands Bend Skyfall, a gelding owned by Amanda and ridden by Danielle, recently came third in the four-year-old Young Dressage Horse Class at PSI Dressage and Jumping with the Stars. Just after that, both sisters came in at first in their classes at the Young Dressage Championships.
These great results are the result of hours of riding, training, and caring for their mounts, around their full-time jobs at Gooromon Park, and their other roles, which for Danielle include being mum to two young children.
So, how did this all start?
“I begged mum for about a year to start horse riding, and she said, ‘We’ll go and see,’ hoping that like most small children that I would forget this phase,” Danielle says, laughing.
Given it’s now been over thirty years, Mrs Clark’s initial reluctance eventually turned into her own career, as she went on to found Gooromon Park while her daughters were teenagers.
Unlike Danielle’s typical horse obsession, Amanda’s journey to equestrian started as an attempt to pay back Danielle for taking over her extracurricular of gymnastics.
“Danielle decided that gymnastics was the way to go for a little bit. She wanted to try it out while she was doing her horse riding. I went, ‘fine then, I’ll start horse riding, see how you like that!'”
But the horse riding stuck for both of them, and they embarked on a journey that included many trusted equine companions, a string of competition wins and placing’s, and eventually building up their own coaching skills to pass on their knowledge to equestrian enthusiasts at all stages of their journeys.
Danielle is Gooromon Park’s Chief Instructor, a role that she loves for both the rewarding experience of teaching beginners, through to watching the youngsters she coached go on to have their own big wins and experiences in the competition ring.
“I really like teaching the beginners, because if you instill someone with the correct foundations from the start, you are never going to have to undo bad habits,” she points out.
Amanda is both a coach at Gooromon Park, as well as the Business Manager, and a lot of her work revolves around keeping the day-to-day running smoothly, as well as ensuring every horse in the school is well taken care of.
“The horses’ welfare always comes first for us,” Amanda says. “It’s not always easy. You have to make hard decisions, but it’s what horse riding is all about.”
The goal of doing something you love as your primary occupation is one that we idolise in Australia – but sometimes it’s the contrast that actually defines what it is you love about your work. Both Amanda and Danielle have worked in the public service before, and enjoyed the office environment and working with their colleagues.
But even though a 9-5 role with a guaranteed salary and standard hours might seem appealing, it just isn’t enough to engage either of the sisters. Just recently, Amanda toyed with going back to an office job.
“I did apply for a job. I got the job. I had to go and get my driver’s licence and do something with my passport. I just kept not doing it. It got to the point that the lady called me up and said, “We need you to do that this week or not.” And I realised, I don’t want to do this. I have so much flexibility right now, I can make my hours, focus on my own riding – I can’t get that in an office job.”
And as Danielle points out, it’s also about how rewarding riding can be.
“Horse riding for me, the actual riding component is like my mental time out. It’s like a partnership with the horse. I think ultimately at times of my life it’s been a bit of an obsession. Sometimes I like to think that it’s a healthy obsession and sometimes it’s been an unhealthy obsession.”
At this, the sisters exchange a wry smile. I get it – whenever people in my life find out that I regularly ride horses, it’s seen as a complete novelty which makes it hard to always justify how much time I put into it. To do it at the level that Danielle and Amanda do, and have it be both your passion, your income, and the way you spend the majority of your time, can lead to misconceptions.
“The misconceptions come partly because it’s equestrian, and partly because we’re women,” Danielle says. “One is that it’s not a real career, unlike being a high flying executive or something. So people think, “what are you doing? You are going to horse ride?” Like you’re going to have a little bit of fun. Not a serious profession.”
Amanda adds that people don’t realise that equestrian can also be lucrative.
“People have said to me, “Why are you doing horses? They’re a liability, they don’t make you any money.” I sold my previous dressage horse, Donnie, for over $50,000. You can definitely make money – though it’s ultimately about doing the right thing for the horse.”
Misconceptions aside, right now Danielle and Amanda have the perfect blend of sisterhood, business, and passion in their careers. The next big thing on the horizon is taking their team of young horses to the next level, led by Hollands Bend Skyfall, or James Bond, as he’s known, around the stables.
I ask Amanda if she doesn’t want to take James back, as his owner, and compete on him instead of Danielle.
She looks at Danielle, and shrugs, addressing her response to her sister.
“I don’t know, you’ve just never been able to have the really good horse. He is too big for me so if I don’t ride him, we’re going to keep him and you’re going to ride him, that’s just the way it is.”
Spoken like a true best friend and sister.
For more information see the Gooromon Park website.